Hannah Gold, the only child of high-flying professional parents, has always been intelligent and mature beyond her years. She knows how to take care of herself, and she knows how to get what she wants. Most of the time. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding and a tragic accident with Hannah’s summer school rommate, Hannah is stuck in a remote treatment facility, unable to return to school and the rest of her life, until she can convince the doctor that she poses no danger to herself or others.
A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel is a character study with laser-sharp focus, wrapped around a central mystery: what exactly happened to Agnes, and was it Hannah’s fault? Over the course of the book Sheinmel does an expert job of telling a story from multiple angles while continuously sticking closely in the first-person perspective. It’s been a long time since I read a story where I felt the ‘unreliable narrator’ thing was done well, but I think this book pulls it off beautifully.
Hannah isn’t a warm character, and it’s hard to feel all that fond of her, so it doesn’t take long to wonder if she’s telling us (or herself) the whole truth about what happened to Agnes at summer school. The clues come thick and fast that Hannah might not be an ideal witness; even leaving aside the fact that she’s been isolated due to the risk of her being dangerous, she’s clearly used to manipulating the people around her. At the same time, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for Hannah as she desperately tries to get herself back to her ‘real life’, hoping against hope that she’ll manage it in time for the start of the next school year.
It’s inevitable that the character whose head we’re in is the one we get to know the best, but Sheinmel also manages a to paint nuanced pictures of the supporting cast through Hannah’s opinions and observations. Agnes (the summer school roommate), Jonah (Agnes’s boyfriend) and Hannah’s parents are fleshed out through flashbacks, while Lucy (Hannah’s roommate at the institute) and Hannah’s doctor get to come and go, interacting with Hannah in her current situation. Despite the differences between all of the characters, and they are highly distinct, it’s clear how Hannah applies the lessons she’s learned from the people she’s been around before to try to win over and influence the people she finds herself stuck with now.
I personally don’t feel qualified to comment on the accuracy of Sheinmel’s portrayal of mental illness, for example Lucy’s eating disorder, but I do think it’s important for young adult novels to confront these things head on and this book certainly does that. The variously unhappy and unwell girls Hannah comes across at the institute were also, I felt, treated respectfully by the story. There is a consistent message of mental illness needing to be managed (and not necessarily cured, which I also think is an important distinction to make), but of it not having to be a person’s defining characteristic. While the book is frequently dealing with quite dark and difficult themes, there is a thread of hope that runs through it.
The story is beautifully written and incredibly layered, and I would recommend it to readers in their teens and upwards. It does deal with some difficult topics, but it does so sensitively and in a way that I believe will promote conversations that young people can really benefit from having. If you enjoyed Feeling Sorry for Celia, Looking For Alaska or any of Lianne Moriarty’s books I would definitely suggest you read A Danger to Herself and Others.